Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Drone taxis

Coming this summer to... where else?
There’s been lots of talk in recent years about self-driving cars. Now, it appears as if self-flying passenger drones are next -- and they could flying in one major city as soon as this July. 
That’s according to a plan revealed Monday in Dubai, where the head of the Dubai Roads and Transportation Authority said it wants to develop passenger-carrying drones as a way to move people around the United Arab Emirates’ biggest city. Officials said flights could begin in July, though few other details were offered.
The Associated Press reports the drone type being pursued for Dubai’s passenger service is the Chinese-made EHang 184, “an egg-shaped craft with four legs sticking out, each with two small propellers.”
The drone, which can travel about 30 miles on a single battery charge, would be completely automated. Passengers would select a destination on a touch screen in front of the seat; the drone’s flight would be monitored remotely from a control room staffed with Dubai RTA personnel and the passenger would have no control over the drone.

That sounds a bit scary, but according to the co-founder of EHang the drone will have software that calculates the most optimal route for the passenger and avoids collisions with other drones. It will also have back-up systems to take over in the case of any primary system failures. Truth be told, these drone taxis might end up being safer than Dubai’s regular taxis!

One problem with the drones (aside from the cost of the fare, which is likely to be substantial) is that they can only carry a person weighing up to 220 pounds. Which means that my fat ass is going to have to lose some weight before I can get in one.

My (landlord's) pretty azeleas

I can't take credit for them because they were here when I moved in, and they might not be as pretty as the ones in my parents neighborhood, but the azaleas in front of my house are putting on a decent enough show:

Usually they don't bloom until March or even April, but thanks to the warm excuse for a winter we've just had, they've decided to make an early appearance.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

2017 UH Cougar football schedule released

The 2017 University of Houston Cougar football schedule has been released:

     Sat Sep 02     at Texas-San Antonio (San Antonio)
     Sat Sep 10     at Arizona (Tucson)
     Sat Sep 16     Rice
     Sat Sep 23     Texas Tech
     Sat Sep 30     at Temple (Philadelphia)
     Sat Oct 07     SMU
     Sat Oct 14     at Tulsa (Tulsa)
     Thu Oct 19    Memphis
     Sat Oct 28     East Carolina
     Sat Nov 04    at South Florida (Tampa)
     Sat Nov 11    (off)
     Sat Nov 18    at Tulane (New Orleans)
     Fri Nov 24     Navy

There's a rumor that the Labor Day weekend game against UTSA at the Alamodome could be moved from Saturday to Sunday or even Monday if the networks so decide; if that happens I'll update this post accordingly.

Structurally, this is a decent schedule. It features two "Power 5" schools, crosstown rival Rice, only two non-Saturday games (it looks like a game on Black Friday is becoming a tradition) and has the three teams the Cougars lost to last season - SMU, Memphis and Navy - at home. My only gripes are the fact that the Coogs start the season with back-to-back road games, and don't get a bye week until very late in the season. This is also the first time in a few seasons that the Cougars don't have seven home games.

Given last season's relative disappointment as well as the fact that the Cougars have a completely new coaching staff and are losing a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, this schedule might present some difficulty on the field. Arizona and Texas Tech are not elite Power Five teams but will nevertheless be challenges. UTSA beat the Coogs the last time the two teams played. Conference road games against Temple, Tulsa and South Florida will be tough, and even schools like Rice and Tulane are going to give the Cougars their best shot.

Win or lose, I'm going to make the best of it. Roadies to UTSA in San Antonio and Tulane in New Orleans are already on my calendar. I'd also like to make the trip to Tucson to see the Arizona game - my cousin and his family live there so I'd have a place to stay - if I can get the finances to work.

The soft tyranny of Donald Trump

Andrew Sullivan, who's back to (semi-) blogging after a two-year hiatus, ponders it:
With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you. 
One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent — and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you — to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves — to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency.
I understand what Sullivan is sensing, because I'm beginning to see it in my own life. I check the news websites several times a day just to read his latest tweet or to see what his administration's latest ridiculous pronouncement or action is. I see that the majority of the posts of my Facebook feed are political in nature. I watch every new episode of Saturday Night Live just to see Alec Baldwin's latest takedown of him (Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer has me in tears, by the way). And all anybody wants to talk about at the bar or at the Super Bowl party is Donald Fucking Trump.

It's relentless. It's discomforting. And it's only been three weeks.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Crushed, I am...

Well, I guess this means that the Dallas Cowboys won't be coming to town for Super Bowl LI after all. And I was so looking forward to our city being graced by the presence of their obnoxious, insufferable fanbase! I guess now I won't get to listen to them explain to us how much Houston (both the team and the city) sucks, or how "Dem Boyz" are still "America's Team" even though they haven't won a Super Bowl in 21 years. And I guess those hordes of bandwagon, t-shirt Cowboy fans (who would have come down for the day so as not to pay for a hotel) aren't going to materialize to loiter around Discovery Green or along Washington Avenue after all. Alas!

It'd be a real shame if Pittsburgh beat the Patriots next weekend, so that the (almost equally insufferable) New England wouldn't be able to make it to town, either.

As for the Texans: given that this franchise is institutionally mediocre, I guess a 10-8 overall record and AFC South title is about the best they could have hoped for. One can only wonder what this team would be like if it had an actual quarterback and some semblance of innovation on offense.

But at least the Texans won a playoff game. Which is more than than can be said for the Cowboys.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

More idiots with guns

Texas State Representative Armando Martinez (D-Welasco) was hit in the head by a stray bullet shortly after midnight on New Year's Day. Fortunately his injuries are not serious, and he is looking into ways to restrict or ban celebratory gunfire as the new legislative session approaches.
Martinez isn't yet sure what the legislation would look like. He spent the time immediately after being shot in the head at Valley Baptist Medical Center. He's since been released. 
But, Martinez told The Texas Tribune that any legislation would definitely involve celebratory gunfire and that he would talk with sheriffs and prosecutors about ideas on how to handle the problem. 
Some states, including Texas, have penalties for injuring someone with joy shots in the air. It's a misdemeanor carrying a $4,000 fine and a year in jail if caught and convicted. Killing someone opens up a shooter to more serious charges.
I empathize with Rep. Martinez, if only because I could have suffered a similar injury about a decade ago: some moron nearby fired a gun into the air, and the bullet landed near to where I was standing at the time.

However, I'm not sure what his proposed ban on celebratory gunfire would accomplish. As the article notes, there are already laws on the books for people who recklessly fire live ammunition into the air.

It also brings up a question that I (who admittedly is not in law enforcement) wonder about: even if you do recover a bullet from a weapon fired in celebration and are able to perform ballistics tests on it, how are you able to actually match it to a weapon in order to secure a conviction? Especially at midnight of the New Year, when legions of idiots are firing their guns into the air? (Seriously: much of Houston turns into Stalingrad at the stroke of midnight every January 1st.) How does law enforcement determine who shot the offending bullet, at least with enough precision for a judge to issue a search warrant so that police can recover, test and match a suspected firearm?

The point being: even if Rep. Martinez's proposed legislation against celebratory gunfire did cover something that's not already on the books in the State of Texas, it seems that prosecuting and convicting somebody for celebratory New Year's gunfire would be a difficult task. You'd practically have to catch them in the act of shooting.

With all that said, firing live ammunition into the air is stupid. It is reckless and lethal, and nobody who truly considers themselves a "responsible" gun owner would do such a thing.

So just stop doing it, people.

Was 2016 really the "year of death?"

2016 might seem like it was the "year of death," considering all the celebrities and other famous people who shoved off this mortal coil this past year.

Musicians such as David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Merle Haggard, and Glen Frey. Actors such as Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke, Carrie Fisher (and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, just one day later). Sports greats such as Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe and Arnold Palmer. Authors such as Umberto Eco, Elie Wiesel, Harper Lee and Richard Adams; playwrights such as Edward Albee; world leaders such as Shimon Peres, Fidel Castro, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand; news media icons such as Morley Safer and Gwen Ifill; even astronauts such as Edgar Mitchell and John Glenn. 

Even Abe Vigoa and Zsa Zsa Gabor passed away this year, and I thought those two were immortal. Here's a rather lengthy list of celebrities that died in 2016.

This, of course, is in addition to all the non-famous people who have passed away this year. Two friends of mine lost their husbands this year (both of them were in their 40s... yikes!). Lots of lives have been lost to the carnage in places like Mosul, Aleppo and Yemen, or to terrorist attacks in places like Istanbul, Orlando, Nice, Baghdad and Berlin. 

For all the “damn you 2016!” and “2016 strikes again!” posts that have popped up on my Facebook feed every time a celebrity has died this year, I  think most people understand that 2016 did not “cause” any of these deaths. A year is an abstract concept, a measure of time. You could point out that a year is not completely abstract, because it does measure the actual physical phenomenon of one earth orbit around the sun, but its limits (i.e. January 1st to December 31st) are arbitrary constructs, and in any case a "year" is intangible and inanimate. Years do not kill people. 

So why does it seem like 2016 was "The Year of the Reaper?" There are a number of possible reasons for such a perception - and even that can be disputed - but I think it comes down to a socio-cultural quirk. "Celebrity culture," as we know it today, really didn't take off until the 1960s, as color televisions began appearing in every household and as baby boomers began to consume entertainment. That trend accelerated through the 70s and 80s, fueled by an expansion of entertainment outlets (for example, the ascendancy of FM radio and cable television; would Prince, David Bowie and George Michael have been as famous today had MTV not existed?). As these celebrities age, not only are Baby Boomers, but as well Generation X (and even Millennials), losing entertainers they grew up with. This mourning is amplified by social media - namely, Facebook and Twitter - in a viral manner that was not even comprehensible until a few years ago. For that reason, 2017 might not be any better

As Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch notes:
Almost everyone on the list of notable 2016 deaths affected the fundamental way we view what it means to be human, of what is possible in life. And it's important to note that these extraordinary people were the product of an extraordinary time in world history. The half-century that followed World War II -- particularly here in America, the nation of birth for most of the people on this list -- was a time when both affluence, especially for the middle class, and leisure time exploded. Those things offered humans an unparalleled new opportunity to innovate and create -- and the more they did, the more they also questioned the traditional boundaries of race, or gender, or human sexuality that had restrained their forerunners. 
Think back 100 years ago to 1916, and it is all but impossible to imagine a Prince or a Muhammad Ali or a George Michael as we came to know them in the latter 20th Century and beyond. It's also impossible to imagine how much spiritually poorer our lives would have been. We have been so blessed to be alive in an era of so many creative people -- and yet there is still one barrier of human experience that even John Glenn could not blast through. 
Everybody dies. And while it seemed like there were too many high-profile deaths this year, the reality is that these microbursts of sadness were the inevitable consequence of living in a time with so many remarkable people have been alive, inspiring joy and wonder. The truly important "news" about Fisher and Ali and Prince is not the moment that we heard that they died, but the years that we saw how they lived.
That's as good a way of looking at is as any. And while we mourn those we've lost over the last year, we will always be able to enjoy and appreciate what they've created for us. David Bowie and Prince are gone, but their music will always be with us. Gene Wilder has passed but Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will be watched by generations yet to come. Edward Albee might be no more, but Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolff? will be eternal.

If 2016 really was the "year of death," then it only serves to remind us that we're all going to die, and that we should therefore savor every moment of our short and ephemeral lives.

Happy 2017, everyone. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl: North Texas 31, Army 38

Since the NCAA started allowing teams with 5-7 records (and high APR scores) to participate in bowl games last season, every team with a losing record had, remarkably, won their bowl game.

Of course, it had to be North Texas to come along last Tuesday and break that streak. 

The 2016 Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl was actually entertaining. The Mean Green rallied from a ten-point deficit to send the game into overtime, but - alas! - couldn't answer the Black Knights' touchdown on their first overtime possession.

North Texas beat Army in the regular season, 35-18, but then went on to lose four out of their next five games and the Mean Green were clearly struggling as they entered this bowl game. UNT ends the season with a 5-8 record, which doesn't sound great but nevertheless represents as many wins as they've accumulated in the last two seasons combined. Here's to hoping that North Texas can continue improving next season.

Army, on the other hand, ends their season on a high note, winning their first bowl game since 2010 only a few weeks after breaking their 14-year drought over arch-rival Navy.

Incidentally, this isn't the first time a 5-7 UNT team has gone bowling. In 2001, they went to the New Orleans Bowl with that record because they won the Sunbelt Conference in spite of their overall losing record. They were then dispatched by Colorado State, 20-45.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

UH football: coaching change, Las Vegas bowl, and season wrapup

When Tom Herman was hired, I wrote the following:
If Herman is successful at Houston, it is probable that he will move on to another job at a higher profile school in a three or four years. That’s fine with me, because it will have meant that he left the program in better shape than he found it; my only request for Coach Herman is that he not screw the Cougars the way Kevin Sumlin did when he left for Texas A&M (who cost the Coogs a Sugar Bowl appearance by spending too much time negotiating with the Aggies and too little time preparing for the Conference USA Championship Game).
Unfortunately, Tom Herman did indeed screw the Cougars, not because he left for his dream job at Texas after only two years - he clearly had his foot out the door the entire time he was here - but because he abruptly departed immediately following his team's final game of the season and took most of his coaching staff with him in the process, leaving UH to prepare for its bowl game with a skeleton staff and a bumnch of players who felt betrayed and demoralized.

Tom Herman (or "Vermin," as he's now known on UH message boards) will be well-compensated in Austin, to the tune of $28.75 million over five years, plus incentives. I hope he's worth it. Herman has only been a head coach for two years, and while some of his wins have been impressive (Florida State, Oklahoma, Louisville), he's also had some disappointing losses (UConn, SMU). For a man who preaches the importance of winning conference championships, he managed a rather sad 2-3 record in the AAC West this past season, good enough for fourth place. Herman is also a less-than-stellar 6-4 on the road. Those numbers won't cut it on the Forty Acres.

In the wake of Herman's departure, the University of Houston conducted a coaching search that reportedly included high-profile names such as former LSU head coach Les Miles, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and West Virginia head caoch Dana Holgerson, but ultimately settled on promoting from within and elevated offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to the head coach position.

Applewhite took the helm of the program just in time to lead the Cougars to their bowl appearance in Las Vegas against Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State. Even given its status as a lower-tier bowl game, the Las Vegas Bowl would have been a nice win for the Coogs, as it would have assured the Cougars of back-to-back double-digit-win seasons, probably would have earned them a place in the final top 25, and at the very least would have ended a dsappointing season on a high note.

Alas, that didn't happen. The Cougars jumped out to a 10-0 lead and led 10-6 at halftime, but completely collapsed in the second half. Greg Ward Jr ended his college career in sour fashion, throwing four interceptions, and the offense could only manage a pathetic 25 rushing yards forthe entire game. The Aztecs scored the game's final 34 points, and SDSU RB Donnel Pumphery broke the NCAA career rushing record against the UH defense. In retrospect, it was probably too much to expect that the Cougars, with its players demoralized and its staff hollowed out, would win this game. But that doesn't make the blowout loss much easier to stomach.

So a season that began with so much promise ends with a whimper: the Cougars failed to win their conference or go to a New Year's Six Bowl, their head coach abruptly abandoned them after only two years (and an entire season of distracting, media-fueled speculation), and, after being ranked as high as #6 during the season, the team won't even crack the season-ending top 25. The Big XII's decision not to expand - the UH program had hoped to be invited into the ranks of the Power Five - only added insult to injury.

Normally, a nine-win season which includes victories over to-ranked Oklahoma and Louisville, and the program's highest average attendance since 1978 would be cause for celebration. But the 2016 UH Cougar football season leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth.

Nothing to do but move forward now. Although I admit to being underwhelmed by the Applewhite hire - the last time the Coogs promoted from within it turned out to be a disaster - I've liked the guy ever since he was quarterback at Texas (he played when I was attending graduate school there) and so I'm giving him the benefit of a doubt. That being said, there are a lot of things he needs to do - quickly - in order to keep the 2017 season from being a true disaster. The first order of business is assembling a staff. Then he has to figure out how to fill the holes going into the 2017 season; the team is losing a lot of talent - Ward, cornerback Brandon Wilson, linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, defensive end Cameron Malveaux, just to name a few - and he also needs to find a way to fix the offensive line, which was the team's most glaring weak spot in 2016. The Chronicle's Joseph Duarte has a list of these and other tasks for Applewhite to attend to.

The 2017 season features games against former SWC foes Rice and Texas Tech and easy, fun road trips to San Antonio and Tulane. The Coogs also get the three teams they lost to this season - SMU, Navy and Memphis - at home next fall. There's certainly reason for optimism heading forward.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Romantic, rapey or just rubbish?

Emily Crockett ponders the 1944 Christmastime standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside:"
When you first hear it, the song seems like a cute, flirty call-and-response duet between a man and his lady friend who are debating whether she should stay the night. On the one hand, what would her parents or the neighbors think? On the other hand, it’s just so cold outside. The ending is ambiguous, but it’s implied that she decides to stay after all, keeping them both warm on a cold winter’s night. 
But when you listen closer, the song’s lyrics also seem, well ... a little rapey. The guy ignores his date’s protests and badgers her to stay, which feels a lot like sexual coercion. At one point the woman asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” — which is pretty alarming to a modern audience that understands how roofies work. The original score even lists the man’s part as “Wolf” and the woman’s part as “Mouse,” making the predator/prey dynamic creepily explicit. 
The song’s legions of defenders argue that those concerns are overblown. They note “What’s in this drink?” was a common joke in the 1930s and ’40s made by people who wanted to make an excuse for something that they knew very well they shouldn’t be doing. And in that more prudish time period, women were expected to turn down sex (at first, anyway) even if they wanted it. 
The vastly different ways people hear the same short song have set off an annual internet battle over its feminist merits. For every think piece calling it a “date-rape anthem,” there’s a corresponding “Oh, come on” take about how oversensitive “social justice warriors” are killing romance and seduction and taking the song’s lyrics out of context. 
Which reading is right? Is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” too problematic to enjoy with a clear conscience anymore, or is our perception of it the real problem?
Crockett goes on to break down the song's lyrics, providing both a "rapey" and "romantic" interpretation of each verse, and then goes into a lengthy discussion about the song, its historical context, its modern interpretation, sexual assault, feminism and affirmative consent. The "romantic versus rapey" debate regarding "Baby, It's cold Outside" is not new, and is culturally important.

However, this debate overlooks the most important and fundamental issue regarding this song, which is that IT ABSOLUTELY SUCKS.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" is the Yuletide equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. Its call-and-response lyrical structure is obnoxious and annoying, and the lyrics themselves are as vapid as they are creepy. The song is melodically repetitive, monotonous and uninteresting; it lacks the most basic elements of songcraft, such as a bridge or a chorus. What's more, it's not even a song about Christmas; there's no mention of anything holiday-related in the lyrics. "It's cold outside" in January, February and even March, too, depending on where you live, so why is this piece of acoustic crap assumed to be a holiday song?

Look, a lot of Christmas songs are utter garbage. Humanity died a little when "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" were recorded, and don't even get me started on the mind-bending stupidity that is "Christmas Shoes." But "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is the absolute worst. It is unlistenable, a crime against music. I don't know it really is a song about date rape, but I do know that I feel like my ears are being raped every time it is played.

So, please: stop playing this song. Better yet, delete or destroy every copy and every version of this song, and for the love of baby Jesus stop recording new versions of it every year.

The best way to resolve the "rapey versus romantic" debate regarding "Baby, It's cold Outside" - and, in the process, to improve Christmas music as a whole - is to simply erase this horrible excuse for a song out of existence entirely.

Seriously. It sucks.